I don't understand why anyone in Britain -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- cares about the royal wedding. And yet here I am obsessively clicking on every story, paying attention to all the details and eagerly awaiting the big day.
That we worship the rich and glamorous elites while simultaneously raging against the rampant inequality that produces them is a paradox that sums up the state of our world at the moment.
You would think in an era of rising economic inequality and amid surging populist sentiment, we wouldn't care about princes and princesses, right? If anything, they might even be a source of frustration for us. After all, did you know that in addition to an estimated net worth of $88 billion, the British royal family has many of its expenses paid for by taxpayers?
And this, despite the fact that Britain has responded to tough economic times by resorting to fiscal austerity -- such that according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UK's budget today is effectively the same as it was 10 years ago. According to the Independent, "The major report from the UK's leading economic think tank shows that deep cuts have left the [National Health Service], schools and prisons in a 'fragile state', and have merely returned public spending to pre-financial crisis levels."
In the United States, we can also expect wall-to-wall media coverage of the royal wedding. Even though our nation was founded, in part, in rebellion against the arbitrary authority of monarchy. Imperfect republic though we might be, we still seem to have a reason to worship celebrity, and I think that's where the fixation with royalty comes in -- that in an increasingly, seemingly hopeless era of economic inequality and political intransigence, maybe we think our only hope is being whisked off to a castle.
Hard work has never paid what it should and is certainly paying off worse than ever today. In the United States, it's becoming increasingly difficult to ascend the economic ladder, especially from the lower rungs. For instance, a study by economists at the University of Massachusetts found that only those who already start with an economic advantage "are likely to continue making good money throughout their working lives."
Similarly in the United Kingdom, research finds that geography determines opportunity -- social and economic mobility is simply more constrained if you're born in certain parts of the country. For instance, children born in remote rural or coastal areas of Britain are less likely to move up the economic ladder because they have access to fewer good schools, jobs and modes of public transportation.
At the same time, we seem more obsessed with wealth than ever, and in its most extreme forms. According to research by Mark Penn, 69% of Americans "believe that American values have declined, and they point to political corruption, increased materialism, declining family values, and a celebrity-obsessed culture as the culprits."
After a slight dip, ratings for "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" have again spiked -- and more people watch the reality show than most cable news broadcasts. And, of course, the United States took its reality TV, wealthy celebrity obsession to a new level when it elected our current president. Plus polls show we believe that rich people are inherently more intelligent and hardworking, despite said president serving as a glaring exception.
So, is not only tolerating but fixating on the royal wedding a tangible expression of this paradox?
Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle seem to understand the contrast their wedding offers to reality today, choosing a more modest celebration, relatively speaking. And yet, are they doing us a disservice? As long as we're indulging in fantasy, why skimp? We continue to give tax breaks to the rich, while threatening to slash funding for health care, food stamps and public education.
So, at this point, heck, I'd also like to lose myself in a bejeweled carriage and a million-dollar gown and imagine that maybe, just maybe, that could be me. In a society and economy of extreme inequality that produces hopelessness, actual policy change is the only answer -- but fantasy is an alluring escape.
Never mind who pays for it. And never mind that when we're paying attention to and reinforcing the desire to be at the tippy top of the top of our economy. The bigger issue is that we're ignoring the structural economic inequality that's hurting us all.
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